With the start of the NHL’s 2021 unrestricted free agent period now in the rear-view mirror, it’s as good a time as any to take stock of the league’s power broker teams.
And one of the best ways to make an argument for any particular franchise as an elite, Stanley Cup frontrunner is to examine and advocate for its defense corps. As the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning showed on their way to the 2020 Cup Final, a team needs a robust collection of blueliners to shake opponents off the puck and get the offense moving in the other team’s direction.
So, arguing that there’s a team that just made the jump to become the NHL’s best defense corps is what I’m here to do. And the club I believe now has the NHL’s best blueline corps – and the team with the best chance at dethroning the back-to-back defending-champion Lightning this coming season – is the Dallas Stars. Just one year removed from making it to the Cup final, the Stars added a huge piece this off-season in veteran D-man and former Minnesota Wild cornerstone Ryan Suter, and that new puzzle piece gives them the best all-around group of defensemen in the game today.
Really, the Stars already had an embarrassment of riches before Suter was bought out by the Wild and made a UFA before signing a four-year, $14.6-million deal with Dallas. The 36-year-old may have had his ice time reduced by a couple of minutes per game in the past couple seasons and no longer is at his peak, but he still averaged more than 22 minutes a night last season, chipping in three goals and 19 points in 56 games. And Suter is somewhat of an ironman, missing 13 games in 2019-20, but playing in all 82 regular-season contests four times since the 2013-14 campaign, and being sidelined for a total of only nine games in seven of the last eight seasons.
Dropping Suter into a mix that already featured the marvelous Miro Heiskanen, the terrific John Klingberg, and the underrated Esa Lindell, gives the Stars a top-four group on the back end that you can put up against any team. They’ve even got a good bottom-two on defense in veteran Andrej Sekera and big Finn Jani Hakanpaa. But with all four of their top defensemen averaging at least 22 minutes per game last season, Stars head coach Rick Bowness won’t have to depend on his third pairing nearly as much as most teams will.
Now, you may look at Dallas’ group of forwards and say, “This is the team you expect to emerge from the rejigged Central Division that includes the Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets? The same Stars team that missed out on the post-season altogether this past year?” And I would answer, yes, yes I do, for reasons beyond simply the first-rate four blueliners: for one thing, Stars GM Jim Nill moved to add experience in net by signing former Capitals Cup-winning netminder Braden Holtby; the 31-year-old didn’t have a good year last season in Vancouver, but that Canucks defense was porous and didn’t get much offensive support. Holtby will push No. 1 goalie Anton Khudobin for opportunities, and Khudobin should bounce back after his save percentage dropped from .930 in 2019-20 to .905 last year.
And again, let’s stress that this Stars lineup is largely the same as the one that won the Western Conference championship in 2019-20, and was just two wins from claiming the third Cup in franchise history. Yes, they struggled to string together long (or many) winning streaks last season, but a few of their key forwards were bitten hard by the injury bug – star center Tyler Seguin played in just three games; forward Alex Radulov appeared in only 11 games; and forward Roope Hintz missed 15 games – and having all three of those talents healthy in 2021-22 will create a tide that raises all of Dallas’ boats. When healthy, the Stars’ top-six forwards are a formidable bunch, and there’s little chance they average just 2.79 goals-for per game as they did last year.
Nill was necessarily selective in his dips into free agency this summer, as the Stars are currently some $4-million over the $81.5 salary cap ceiling. But his acquisition of Holtby is a sign the organization is preparing to place veteran netminder Ben Bishop on Long-Term Injured Reserve and slip under the cap. But Nill has never been shy about making in-season moves before, and that won’t change now. And getting skilled players such as Seguin and Radulov back in the lineup amounts to a roster boost to rival anything their rivals have done this summer. In sum, Dallas is going to be better on offense, better on defense, and at least as good in net as they were in 2020.
Don’t get me wrong, there are other clubs that can boast of high-impact defense groups. The Lightning, of course, have Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev; the Vegas Golden Knights have Alex Pietrangelo, Alec Martinez and Shea Theodore; the Blues employ Justin Faulk, Torey Krug and Colton Parayko; the remodeled Flyers’ defense corps includes Ivan Provorov, Ryan Ellis, Travis Sanheim and Rasmus Ristolainen. There definitely are arguments to be made that any one of the aforementioned ‘D’ groups have the depth and skill to challenge Dallas for the label of having the best group of defensemen in the league.
But don’t kid yourself – the addition of Suter in Dallas is a massive move, and one that sets the bar for Stars opponents. All three of Suter, Heiskanen and Klingberg are above-average puck-movers, and all four, including Lindell, have the smarts, high-end panic thresholds and positional awareness to make life difficult for any opponent entering Dallas’ zone. The Stars are going to be a handful and then some for anyone they face, and they’re all but a lock to earn a playoff berth and go on a lengthy post-season run.
And their defense corps will be a huge reason why they get there.